Recently Mystery Readers Journal had a two-part series on articles about small town cops. Mine appeared in Volume 2—and here it is. If you don’t belong to Mystery Readers International and subscribe to the Journal, you should.
Small Town Crimes; Small Town Cops
For me, small town crimes are big time fun. Crimes set in big cities, with large and sophisticated police forces, are good but when murder happens in a more closed community, it’s more personal. The cops, or PIs, or amateur sleuths who investigate such tragedies more often than not know the victims, and the suspects. That’s the way it is in small towns.
The cop likely got the job because no one else wanted it. The coroner is the local undertaker. Homicide detectives? Nope. Don’t have one of those. Maybe Barney, at best. So the pressure on the investigators is even greater. And the watchful eyes of the community add another layer of conflict. Good stuff.
The police station is in an old house, the chief hangs out at the local diner, the corruption a personal affront. No faceless bad guys here. The killer is part of the community. The secrets are tightly bound to local history. There are many examples.
The best, in my opinion, is James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series. Dave is an ex-New Orleans cop who now lives near New Iberia. LA—the home of Tabasco—a small town nestled among the swamps in the Atchafalaya Basin. Nowhere in modern literature does the locale play such a role in stories. The geography, the weather, the colorful characters create a feeling that is real and actually makes your clothes stick to your body as you read them. Mr. Burke puts you there. And Dave is constantly battling his past and nefarious characters who seem to continually slither from the swamp.
Linwood Barclay’s Promise Falls series is set in a small upstate New York town that has seen better days and has secrets within secrets. And it’s these secrets that often drive the narrative. His cast of characters include a cop, a PI, a newspaper man, and all the usual suspects you see in small town America.
And then there’s Chief Kate Burkholder, Linda Castillo’s wonderfully complex and conflicted ex-Amish cop. When Kate left the fold, she was shunned by many members of the order, yet in each story she must return to that community to solve one sordid crime after another. Her past not only allows her to understand the community but also causes personal and political conflicts she must navigate. This is what great storytelling is all about.
And what about the death rates in Kinsey Millhone’s Santa Teresa, CA and Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove? This would give anyone pause before moving to either. But these towns and their skeletons play major roles in Sue Grafton’s alphabet novels and the hit Murder She Wrote TV series. These stories simply wouldn’t be the same if they played out in a larger, more impersonal locale.
I grew up in Huntsville. AL and that’s where my Dub Walker series is set. Sure Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center is the heart of the US Space Program, and the city has more scientists than you can shake a stick at, but Huntsville is a small town at heart. Drive 15 minutes in any direction and you are in the depths of rural America. Farmland and small communities. This small, tight-nit community plays a major role in each story.
In my Samantha Cody series, Sam hales from the tiny town of Mercer’s Corner. You won’t find it on a map because it’s a total fabrication. But it sits roughly where the town of Amboy is—you don’t even have to blink to miss it—where I-40 and the old Route 66 part ways. The town’s compressed geography and isolation play a large role in Devil’s Playground. The story simply would not have worked in New York. And when Sam travels, and invariably becomes involved in murderous situations, it’s always to a small town. In Double Blind it’s Gold Creek, Colorado (also a fabrication) along the famous San Juan Parkway, while in Original Sin it’s Remington. TN—loosely based on Winchester, TN—where many of my ancestors resided.
DEEP SIX, the first in my new Jake Longly comedic thriller series, is set in Gulf Shores, AL and environs. Though Gulf Shores now boasts hoards of multi-million dollar homes and high-rise condos, it remains a small town. And everyone knows Jake, his PI father Ray, and his friend Tommy “Pancake” Jeffers. These entanglements are evident throughout the story.
So, for me, small towns and small town cops make the best stories. The geography, the closed communities, and the many secrets these places strive to protect, complicate the stories in a way a large urban area never could.
Published in Mystery Readers Journal Volume 32, Number 4, Winter 2017